How to Write a Chapter


I’m writing an epic fantasy with seven viewpoints right now. It’s no small task to manage the storylines, to juggle character arcs, and to weave the entire plot through those varied various. Recently, I’ve been examining how I begin a chapter and how I move forward to it’s completion. There are some really short, take-them-or-leave-them tips that have come out of that examination:

  • Consider how it connects to the previous chapter from that character’s perspective. I’ll take my character Gemma for example. In one of her chapters, she’s giving the survivors of a plane crash haircuts. It’s meant to be exceedingly light, one of those moments inserted between action and chaos to alleviate the reader and provide a small (read SMALL) ray of hope. It works. After examining that, I did not want Gemma’s next scene to be as comfortable. I simply asked, “What would make her most uncomfortable?” Gemma’s old and in a situation where her age is very meaningful. I decided to use another character to exacerbate that discomfort and draw her into a place of anger and frustration over it.
  • Consider how it connects to the previous chapter directly before it. I wanted to make sure Gemma’s story continued properly, but I also have to make sure the piece of her story is well-positioned with the rest of the narrative. How? Well the scene right before hers is a scene of creation. Someone is bringing something to life. I wove that fact into her scene in two big ways: she has an encounter with the new creation and she’s forced to consider her own death in the scene, which juxtaposes ideas of creation and newness. Even if the reader doesn’t catch these two chapters held up side by side, they’ll hopefully feel the rhythm of these things in their reading.
  • Examine where each paragraph starts and where it ends. Does the trajectory make sense? Did you stray from the subject of that paragraph? Maybe you were supposed to be describing the dragon, but you got sidetracked by describing the waterfall around it… Did you take ten sentences to get there when you should have taken 5? Does that paragraph nestle logically in with what’s around it, or does it stick out awkwardly?
  • Closer or farther. I like examining if my character has moved closer to their desired goal/outcome or farther from it. In most scenes, they should do one or the other. Stagnation frustrates characters and readers.
  • Dominant or Not. I also like examining my character’s status in the scene. Are they setting the tone? Are they the leader? Is the person they’re interacting with afraid of them? It helps to shift this from character to character, too. For instance, I have a scene in which a character gets ordered around harshly… He then follows this encounter by snapping at one of his own subordinates to do something. Exploring those shifts in powers tells us more about each character.
  • Critical Hits – Is there anything new in the scene that doubles or triples the reader’s interest, even for a moment? I never want the action to fully die down. For example, that scene in which Gemma’s giving haircuts? Totally positive scene. The other survivors love her for it. They’re laughing and having fun. It goes really well… until right around sunset. Someone shows up for a haircut that Gemma doesn’t like. What does she do? A positive scene gets drawn into darkness, suspicion, and intrigue.
  • The Close – I think there are hundreds of ways to end a chapter. I’m always wary of the red herring chapter ending: “Something breathed on her neck…” And then we cut to the next scene only to find out it’s a fairy and all is well… Those can work, but used sparingly. I’d much rather see a scene close with a really meaningful line that summarizes or concludes or increases what’s been happening in the scene up until that point. If you ever want a lesson in this, check out The Wizard of Earthsea series by Ursula K. Le Guin. A friend, Stephen Carradini, pointed this out to me. She’s a master of making sure her final lines have weight in each chapter. If the point of the chapter was to open Ged’s eyes to his own weakness, the final line will really hit that aspect home in a way that’s powerful without being preachy.

Those are just a few of the writing thoughts on my mind today. I was working on two scenes. One came together so easily. The other struggled out of the gate, and took a lot of revising. These are some of the qualities I noted about the first one, and my approach to it.

Hopefully they help! Happy writing!

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